Howard - master of the flip flop

PARLIAMENT resumes next week following a recess enlivened by the deliberate Conservative strategy of launching policy initiatives while Tony Blair and his ministers languished on foreign beaches away from the dreary British weather.

PARLIAMENT resumes next week following a recess enlivened by the deliberate Conservative strategy of launching policy initiatives while Tony Blair and his ministers languished on foreign beaches away from the dreary British weather.

Indeed, the only Labour presence apart from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was junior education minister David Miliband explaining away soaring A level pass rates and poor literacy and numeracy GCSE results and the private difficulties of Home Secretary David Blunkett.

But Tony Blair has hit the ground running this week, confident his Government can win an historic third term and dismissing the floundering Tories.

While the Tory announcements on law and order were designed to re-inforce their clear approval rating with the electorate on these issues, most of their August announcements have hardly registered.

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Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin may be exceptionally bright and very able. But when it comes to a straight comparison with Gordon Brown, the dour Scotsman beats the old Etonian hands down. Mr Letwin's ponderous attempts to explain how the Tories would take a scythe to civil service over manning went over everyone's head.

Tory leader Michael Howard's attack on political correctness and Shadow Home Secretary David Davis's totally ill-judged onslaught on the Human Rights Act made the Conservatives look as if they had swung even further to the right.

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Coupled with the opinion polls which show no movement towards the Tories – the YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph on July 30 was summed up in a headline "Out of touch, stuck in the past, lacking leadership and a sense of direction" – perhaps Mr Blair should call an early election and put the Conservatives out of their misery.

Tory activists are puzzled. How can it be claimed that "millions of voters have simply gone off the Tory party" and that the Tories "are no longer taken seriously or seen as relevant" when they are winning council by-elections. It's a fair point. In last week's local authority contests, the Conservatives made four gains.

In Congleton in Cheshire, the Tories gained two seats from Labour (12.5% swing). In South Lanarkshire in Scotland, the Tories ousted Labour on a swing of 15.5% while in Vale Royal district in Cheshire, the Lib Dems were put to the sword on a swing of 19.3%. Meanwhile in North-East Lincolnshire, the Liberal Democrats trounced Labour with a 24.2% swing.

Overall, this represents an 11.8% Tory lead, while YouGov's August poll showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 34%.

It's in parliamentary by-elections where the performance of the Tories has been downright appalling and the forthcoming Hartlepool contest looks set to humiliate Howard.

The Conservatives are worse off now than under the much maligned Iain Duncan Smith 12 months' ago. Labour's support remains doggedly high and the Tories face a pincer movement by the Lib Dems and the UK Independence Party.

For what it's worth, my reading of the current political situation is this: the electorate seems to have made a conscious decision to prefer Labour in power in Whitehall with the Conservatives – plus some Liberal Democrats enclaves – running county and town halls. There seems little prospect of any change this side of the General Election.

THE Prime Minister used a speech to a small number of Labour headquarters staff on Wednesday to set out the seven key challenges which the Government will focus on "relentlessly" until the election.

Mr Blair accused opponents of peddling "the politics of pessimism and anxiety" and added: "Only this party, Labour, is facing the future with confidence."

He savaged the Tories, whose revival since Michael Howard became leader has stuttered to a halt. "This responsibility to address the future clearly is ever more important to us as, frankly, the Tories flounder, incapable of the bold renewal, top to bottom, that their party needs."

There never was any gratitude in politics – without Tory parliamentary support, Britain would not have waged war on Iraq. Now Blair seems to hyping himself for an election campaign that may leave the Tories reeling.

It's clear why – there's nothing but contempt for the preposterous stance of Howard that while he still thinks the toppling of Saddam Hussein was right, he would not have voted for it if had realised the intelligence which made the case was flawed.

In the Republican Party convention Thursday night, delegates chanted "flip flop" when Vice President Dick Cheney lambasted Democrat nominee John Kerry for his on-off stance of the war.

Howard's flip-flopping seems nothing short of opportunism.

HARWICH Labour MP Ivan Henderson has hit out at Liberal Democrat proposals to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12, and to ensure offenders under 14 are dealt with by social services rather than the police and criminal justice system.

A motion being presented to this month's Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth, has the backing of the party's Home Affairs spokesman Mark Oaten, who said: "We believe it is better for offenders under 14 to be dealt with by social services, with the most serious offenders being detained in secure accommodation, rather than being placed in a young offenders' institution, which are too often colleges of crime."

The Lib Dems say the move would bring Britain more in line with its European counterparts but Labour hit back, claiming the changes would mean that the youngsters who killed Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger would not have faced a court trial. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were only 10 when they abducted two-year-old James from a Bootle shopping centre before torturing and killing him.

Dubbing the plans "bizarre," Ivan Henderson said: "Labour believes the best way to tackle youth offending is for a mix of prevention and punishment which ensures young people realise there are consequences for their actions.

"It is important that where appropriate, the police do have the power to ensure that young people who commit serious crimes can be dealt with effectively by the criminal justice system in a way that will stop them offending again in the future. The proposal to raise the age of responsibility would mean criminals knowing they are untouchable by the law, and victims knowing nothing can be done."

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